Elizabeth Knox CNZM speaks with Catherine Chidgey about her two latest books: The Axeman’s Carnival (out in October) and her critically acclaimed 2020 novel Remote Sympathy. In both books, Chidgey chips away the façade of domesticity to expose darker places.
The Axeman’s Carnival is Chidgey at her finest – comic, profound, poetic, and true. In this story, Marnie is married to a farmer and their marriage is a violent one. When she rescues a magpie chick that has fallen from its nest and raises it, it becomes an internet sensation. Her husband Rob is opposed to the bird – a ‘pest’ – taking up residence with them, but as its fame spreads and it starts to earn them enough money to save their high-country farm, he grudgingly puts up with it. However, their marriage is placed under greater and greater stress due to the intense attention from their Twitter followers... Things come to a head on the day Rob defends his title at the Axeman’s Carnival (an annual rural event involving competitive woodchopping by strong silent men). Part trickster, part surrogate child, part witness, Tama the magpie is the star of this story.
In Remote Sympathy, which was shortlisted for the 2022 DUBLIN Literary Award, longlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was a finalist in the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Award for Fiction, Frau Greta Hahn discovers moving away from their lovely apartment in Munich isn’t nearly as wrenching an experience for her as she had feared. Their new home is even lovelier than the one they left behind, and best of all – right on their doorstep – are some of the finest craftsmen from all over Europe. Frau Hahn and the other officers’ wives living in this small community are encouraged to order anything they desire, whether new curtains made from the finest French fabrics, or furniture designed to the most exacting specifications. Life here in Buchenwald would appear to be idyllic. Yet lying just beyond the forest that surrounds them – so close and yet so remote – is the looming presence of a work camp. A tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels us to question our continuing and wilful ability to look the other way in a world that is once more in thrall to the idea that everything – even facts, truth, and morals – is relative.
In both stories, the savage and the domestic exist side by side – and overlap. Another central concern for Chidgey in both novels is the formidable power of language; the way we use it to manipulate and conceal as much as we use it to communicate and illuminate.
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With thanks to Te Herenga Waka University Press.